I get some interesting and varied things sent to Scots Whay Hae!, and believe me, I’m grateful for each and every one. If you send something and it doesn’t get reviewed then that’s because the rule of thumb is if it’s not for me then I’m not going to pan it for the sake of it. Scots Whay Hae! is a celebration of the things that make my day and I need to be able to look each and every one of you in the virtual eye and be able to say that a review is a true reflection of how I, and the other folk who occasionally write on these pages, feel about a book, film or piece of music. But I like to think that everything is given a fair hearing as, well, it’d be rude not to, and sometimes you do get a pleasant surprise.
Scots born writer Margot Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy was sent to me a couple of month’s ago, and was described as a re-imagining of Jane Eyre set in mid-20th century Scotland. The only work of the Bronte sisters I have ever read was Emily’s Wuthering Heights in my mid-teens; a result of a Kate Bush fixation that I’ve never quite got over. Victorian literature on the whole is a sad gap in my knowledge, with the exception of R.L Stevenson and Dickens. The blurb on the cover of The Flight of Gemma Hardy makes such a big deal of the influence of Charlotte Bronte’s novel I was worried my lack of knowledge would be a barrier to any enjoyment, and after the first chapter I had convinced myself this wasn’t for me.
However, what kept me reading on was Livesey’s lean use of language, and an engaging central character whose side you are on from the first few pages. Gemma Hardy is a classic literary creation, one that is at once familiar and yet determinedly individual. The book is split into five parts, but the story is seamless as Gemma is compelled to move from place to place trying to find somewhere she can call home, and all the time suspecting she was taken from her true home, as well as her family, at a young age. Her relationships with others are complex and perhaps unsurprising, looking for fraternal figures that never quite live up to her expectations (and how could they). There are father, mother, sister and brother substitutes along the way, but since she has no real idea of who she is (including her real name), then she cannot hope to fully engage with others.
Margot Livesey was raised in the boy’s school her father taught, and her mother nursed, at in the Scottish Highlands, and this upbringing has obviously fed into The Flight of Gemma Hardy. Gemma is always a girl aside from those around her, no matter what lengths she goes too to fit in. She is the cuckoo in the nest who is searching for a home, with no real idea of where to start her odyssey. It is also the story of Gemma’s odd path to adulthood, one which starts far too young, and although Gemma’s upbringing is unusual, Livesey captures all the trauma’s, tribulations and self doubt that accompanies adolescence and beyond. She also has another aspect of her writing that brings a reader and a book together; Gemma visits recognisable, real, places, and Livesey manages to give the book a believable sense of place no matter where Gemma journeys. I have never been to Orkney yet I feel I could take you to the church in Kirkwall, and around the Sinclair home. Such an ability always lends a truth to any story, and is rarer than you may think.
You can learn more about Margot Livesey by going to her website margotlivesey.com.